Are Near-Death Experiences Just Comforting Illusions?
Verified perception during NDEs suggests they may have some basis in reality.
Posted August 8, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
We all know the classic features of the near-death experience: floating above one’s body, moving through a tunnel toward a bright light, seeing a review of the events of one’s life, meeting the souls of deceased loved ones and possibly even a divine figure, and, in the end, suddenly being thrust back into one’s body.
Surveys indicate that from 4 to 15% of people have had a near-death experience or “NDE” (Gallup and Proctor 1982; Knoblauch et al. 2001; Perera et al. 2005), and most of these people find their lives profoundly changed by the experience (Noyes et al. 2009). Afterward, they are left with the conviction that life does not end with the death of the body, that our souls live on in a realm that transcends the physical reality of daily life.
But is this true? Are NDEs really evidence for the immortality of consciousness, or are they just illusions created by the chemistry of a dying brain, which many people happen to interpret in a comforting way?
As you might expect, this is not an easy question for science to answer, because the realm that NDErs claim to experience—if it does exist—is likely not the sort of thing whose presence we can directly confirm with the aid of a telescope or other physical device. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of some NDEs that are verifiable.
It has been reported that some NDErs have correctly perceived physical events that they could not have normally seen or heard even if their brains and bodies had been fully functional. A number of such cases have been investigated by various researchers and collected by Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven, and Rudolf H. Smit in their 2016 book The Self Does Not Die.
For instance, in a case reported on by hospice physician John Lerma (2007, 10-12), an 82-year-old man had an NDE in which he floated out of his body in the hospital trauma room. From a position up above the goings-on there, he saw a quarter sitting on the right-hand corner of the eight-foot-high cardiac monitor, a quarter dating from the year 1985. After he was resuscitated, he asked Lerma to go and check whether the quarter was really there, so he could know whether his very affecting spiritual experience was real. Lerma took a ladder and climbed up to look, and there indeed was the 1985 quarter, just as the patient had seen it.
In another case, this one originally recorded by Kenneth Ring and Madelaine Lawrence (1993), a patient described having an NDE in which she was pulled upward through the floors of the hospital until she came up out of the roof. From there, she noticed a red shoe lying on the roof. A skeptical physician later went onto the roof to check and indeed discovered the red shoe she’d described.
Other NDErs have received verification for their perceptions of distant events as diverse as their grandmothers both suddenly taking up smoking (Rivas et al. 2016, 44), their wife and daughter discussing taking cuttings from a unique tree in a hospital courtyard (45), and a leg amputation in a nearby operating theater, which the NDEr described in some detail (59).
In other cases, it has been verified that an NDEr accurately perceived an event that occurred precisely during the period when the NDEr’s heart was stopped and normal brain function had ceased. In fact, Rivas, Dirven, and Smit devote an entire chapter of their book to cases of awareness and perception during cardiac arrest.
One example is the case of a man who saw his dentures being removed and put on a tray on the crash cart. While this event did not happen at any great distance from his body, it occurred while the patient was “ashen gray, with livor mortis (in which blue-black discoloration occurs where blood pools in the lowest areas of the corpse) and blue lips and nails. He exhibited no blood circulation…[and] had no heart rhythm” (Rivas et al. 2016, 63).
As Rivas, Dirven, and Smit make clear, “[d]uring cardiac arrest, the brain activity of the cortex is shut down within an average of about 15 seconds to such an extent that, according to materialists, no complex conscious experiencing can occur after this point” (55). By the time the man who saw his dentures removed was brought into the hospital, he had been in cardiac arrest for a great deal longer than 15 seconds. He had been found “unconscious, stone cold, and apparently clinically dead out in a meadow…. In the ambulance, they tried to resuscitate him, but failed…” (63).
This explains the man's blue appearance when he arrived at the hospital, where his dentures were removed before the renewal of resuscitation efforts. Those resuscitation efforts then took over an hour to be effective enough for the patient to be transmitted to the ICU. And yet, about a week later, the patient spoke to the nurse who had removed his dentures and said that he had seen the nurse place them on the pull-out shelf of a cart with lots of bottles on it, which is exactly what the nurse had done.
Now, do these NDE perceptions prove that all of the other aspects of NDErs’ experiences are accurate—for instance, that they really did meet their deceased loved ones, or that they truly met God? No, they don’t prove this. But they do suggest that NDEs might include contact with reality, even without normal heart or brain function, and that this contact may actually stretch beyond what we are capable of when our bodies are operating normally.
Gallup, G., & Proctor, W. (1982). Adventures in immortality: A look beyond the threshold of death. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Knoblauch, H., Schmied, I., & Schnettler, B. (2001). Different kinds of near-death experience: A report on a survey of near-death experiences in Germany. Journal of Near-Death Studies 20(1): 15-29.
Lerma, J. (2007). Into the light: Real life stories about angelic visits, visions of the afterlife, and other pre-death experiences. Pompton Plains, NJ: New Page Books.
Noyes, R., Fenwick, P., Holden, J. M., & Christian, S. R. (2009). Aftereffects of pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, and D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences: Thirty years of investigation (pp. 41-62). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Publishers.
Perera, M., Padmasekara, G., & Belanti, J. (2005). Prevalence of near-death experiences in Australia. Journal of Near-Death Studies 24(2): 109-16.
Ring, K., & Lawrence, M. (1993). Further evidence for veridical perception during near-death experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies 11(4): 223-9.
Rivas, T., Dirven, A., & Smit, R. H. (2016). The self does not die: Verified paranormal phenomena from near-death experiences (W. Boeke, Trans., J. M. Holden, Ed.). Durham, NC: IANDS Publications.